Monday, October 14, 2013

Tennesseans Iwasaki and Fellenbaum impressive in Portland Columbia Symphony concert

Jun Iwasaki sounded better than ever in his performance of Burch’s Second Violin Concerto on Friday evening (October 11) at First United Methodist Church. The former concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony was in town to perform Bruch’s underappreciated concerto with the Portland Columbia Symphony at its season opening concert. Iwasaki left the Oregon Symphony two years ago to become the concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony, but he has maintained ties with Portland, recently filling as concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony. On the podium was guest conductor James Fellenbaum, who is one of five finalists for the music director position of the Portland Columbia Symphony. Fellenbaum has been the resident conductor of the Knoxville Symphony since 2008. So, in a way, as violinist and executive director Betsy Hatton told the audience, the combo appearance of Iwasaki and Fellenbaum was a mini-Tennessee invasion.

It’s unfortunate that Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is not played more often. As Fellenbaum pointed out in the program notes, it begins with a melancholy Adagio and transitions to second and third movements that have faster tempos. So audiences have never warmed up to the piece, despite its gorgeous and inventive themes. From the first note of his performance on Friday, Iwasaki created a rich, solid tone that firmly announced the serious mood of the piece. As the piece transitioned into other moods and themes, Iwasaki soared with singing high notes, lovely double stops, and extended trills. The orchestra supported his playing in outstanding fashion. The fiery ending from Iwasaki’s violin sent musical sparks everywhere, and the audience responded with an immediate standing ovation.

Fellenbaum, also, made a strong impression, leading the orchestra in an expressive performance of the Overture to Verdi’s opera “La Forza del Destino.” He inspired the orchestra to make dramatic contrasts with tempo and volume. He especially encouraged a very robust brass sound and made sure that the ending of the piece was snappy.

The Brahms Second had an excellent sound, but much of the piece suffered from too much of the same dynamics. Under Fellenbaum’s direction, the piece just didn’t seem to go anywhere and was sinking under its own weight until the last movement when the tempo sped up a bit. Some attacks were spot on, but others weren’t steady. The French horns, for example, were outstanding in some passages but wobbly in others. One of the consistently brightest spots throughout the piece, though, was the lovely playing of principal oboist Brad Hochhalter.

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